New York general manager Jérôme de Bontin moved from his hotel in Hoboken, N.J. into the safety of Red Bull Arena four days ago to prepare for Hurricane Sandy’s arrival.
He experienced first-hand how the massive storm enveloped the stadium, but spared its integrity and its roof. He saw how the deft work of stadium personnel preserved and protected the playing surface. He watched as the power went out and the water seeped into some of the permanent structures.
The trials of the past few days made one thing quite clear to de Bontin: it would be a difficult, if not impossible, task to host the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal against D.C. United on Saturday night with the ongoing issues at the stadium and the wider logistical concerns throughout the New York metropolitan area.
“In conversations with Major League Soccer and the local authorities, we felt, at the end of the day, it was in all parties’ best interests to find a suitable alternative,” de Bontin said during a conference call on Wednesday night.
MLS commissioner Don Garber discussed the situation with de Bontin, United president and chief executive officer Kevin Payne, television executives and officials from throughout the league on Tuesday and Wednesday. He explored the possibility of playing the match as scheduled at an alternative venue such as PPL Park in Chester, Pa. He understood the tight postseason calendar – already packed with matches and constrained by an upcoming FIFA date on Nov. 14 – offered little room to maneuver.
By the time late Wednesday afternoon hit, Garber reached his decision: the two teams would flip hosting rights in the two-game, aggregate goals series and play the matches as scheduled.
United will now host the first leg at RFK Stadium on Saturday night. New York will host the second leg at Red Bull Arena next Wednesday, if conditions permit.
“This was a tough decision, but one we think is much bigger than the sport of soccer,” Garber said. “I’d like to impress on everybody that when we made the decision, we took into consideration all of the issues that will impact everyone involved. We made the decision that we believed was in the best interests of all parties.”
The decision leaves second-seeded United in a tough spot. The homefield advantage gained by finishing ahead of the Red Bulls during the regular season is now gone. The club must now stage a playoff game four days ahead of schedule and spread word to its fans about the switch with little or no notice.
Payne told the Washington Post on Tuesday that he would not support the idea of switching hosting rights, but he assented today after further discussions with de Bontin, Garber and league officials. Payne said he and his club understood that this situation needed to be viewed through a more expansive lens in light of the events over the past few days.
“These are extraordinary circumstances that we all face,” United president and chief executive officer Kevin Payne said. “Our club worked very hard to try to earn homefield advantage in the playoffs. We were very proud that we achieved that, but there are times in which circumstances override competitive concerns. This is clearly one of those times.”